Whitney Hansen made her final appearance for the University of Canterbury in 2018, having made the decision to hang up her playing boots at the end of the previous season when it dawned on her that she was deriving more pleasure from devising plans for the team’s forwards and set-piece than enacting them.
She had played more than 100 times for the University of Canterbury, playing mostly at number eight and across the front row, and had also represented Canterbury in the Farah Palmer Cup but was ready for a new challenge.
“I got to the point where I realised I was more passionate about how the game worked than actually executing it myself,” she said.
“Our club team had just won three years in a row and it felt like the right time.”
In lieu of a dedicated forwards coach at the club, Hansen had long been interested in the tactical and technical aspects of the game.
Three years ago, she began her coaching journey with her club side and was soon also recruited by Canterbury to work with their U18 girls’ team.
Hansen has since been part of the coaching staff for the Black Ferns Development XV that competed at the Oceania Rugby Women’s Championship 2019, and the New Zealand Barbarians.
🗞️ RWC NEWS // New Zealand Barbarians assistant coach Whitney Hansen will join the #BlackFerns management team as their selected @rugbyworldcup 2021 coach intern.— Black Ferns (@BlackFerns) December 16, 2020
READ 👉🏽 https://t.co/8kXWevFu4g#RWC2021 pic.twitter.com/5DAlMtA0hZ
She also served as an assistant coach for Canterbury during this year’s Farah Palmer Cup, and is one of two female rugby coaches currently enrolled on High Performance Sport NZ’s Te Hāpaitanga programme.
“With the Canterbury women's team I am the forwards and set-piece coach,” Hansen added. “That's where my passion is at the moment, but I can get pretty excited about all areas of the game.
“We start talking about an attack shape or defence system, I can get equally excited about those. But, at the moment, the set-piece is where I'm really trying to hone my craft.”
Hansen will have plenty of opportunity to polish her set-piece skills over the coming months after it was announced she would join the Black Ferns management staff as part of the Rugby World Cup 2021 Coaching Internship Programme.
The 33-year-old will work with Glenn Moore and his backroom team on the road to RWC 2021, with her time divided between on-pitch coaching and analysis.
“Excited is probably the first word that comes to mind,” Hansen said when asked to describe her emotions on being accepted onto the programme.
“World Rugby and New Zealand Rugby have given me an incredible opportunity that I am really looking forward to.
“Not only getting to go and be part of a World Cup campaign, but also to be part of the build up and the reflection that will take place afterwards.”
Hansen will juggle her commitments with the Black Ferns alongside her day job as a primary school teacher.
She has a supportive Board of Trustees, and Principal, who have ensured she has the time off she needs to achieve her coaching ambitions. Working in the classroom has also allowed her to witness the growth of women’s rugby first-hand.
Asked if anticipation was building ahead of New Zealand 2021, Hansen replied: "There definitely is, I think that it is huge for the women's game here, it's such a fantastic opportunity to showcase [it].
“In New Zealand, we get better and better at doing that every year. I’ve seen a big change from when I was at school. The few girls that did play rugby at lunchtimes or on Saturdays dreamed of being an All Black whereas now I teach girls who dream of being Black Ferns and can see a future in the game as a women's player.
“There is a real following around women's rugby, and I think that is growing exponentially.”
Hansen believes it will also be “huge” for the New Zealand squad to be able to defend the Rugby World Cup crown they won at Ireland 2017 in front of their friends and family.
And she is delighted to be able to be part of that process. “Before knowing about this opportunity, it's one that you couldn't probably even dream of,” she said.
“It's a pinnacle event and what some of these girls and coaches work towards up to for four years, so it'll be pretty special to be a part of that.”
Hansen herself has achieved a lot since stepping into coaching in 2017, but what are her long-term ambitions?
“I would love to coach a New Zealand team one day,” she said.
“But I'm still relatively young in the coaching space, and it's really important for me that I nail the roles that I've got at the moment.
“So, I'm working really hard with Canterbury in and around set-piece and I will be doing the same with other opportunities that present themselves in the future.”
Photos: New Zealand Rugby